From dog’s folly to truffiere

The Orchardist - - Profile - Story and pho­tos by Karen Tre­bil­cock

Rod and Mi­rani Keillor al­most gave up on their truf­fière.

It had been 12 years since they planted the in­oc­u­lated hazel­nut trees and there had been no signs of the Périg­ord black truf­fle un­der any of them. They wanted to ex­tend their vine­yard, the dig­gers were ready, and then the truf­fle dog and its han­dler did their rounds as they had done ev­ery year.

And for the first time the dog found them.

“For 12 years I had been call­ing it Rod’s folly,” Mi­rani said. “Now I call it our truf­fière.”

The find was not only ex­cit­ing for the Keil­lors but also for the in­dus­try and the re­gion. Their truf­fière, at Ban­nock­burn near Cromwell in Cen­tral Otago, is the fur­thest south black truf­fière in the coun­try.

The white truf­fle is even grown in South­land but the prized Périg­ord black truf­fle, worth $3,000 per kilo­gram, had only been pro­duced suc­cess­fully as far south as Ash­bur­ton.

The fun­gus grows on the tree roots, and in Spain, France and Italy it oc­curs nat­u­rally un­der de­cid­u­ous trees such as oaks, hazel­nuts and cher­ries.

Prized through­out the world by chefs, the truf­fles grow en­tan­gled in the tree roots and are dug up in the depths of win­ter.

Black truf­fles have also been cul­ti­vated in South Africa and parts of North and South Amer­ica. In West­ern Aus­tralia the in­dus­try is worth mil­lions of dol­lars with tonnes har­vested an­nu­ally.

Rod and his fam­ily al­ready owned land in Ban­nock­burn, three hours away from their home in Dunedin, and in 1999 planted pinot noir vines there.The ma­jor­ity of the grapes are now sold to nearby winer­ies but they also bottle un­der their own la­bel. Black Quail Pinot Noir reg­u­larly wins awards, in­clud­ing last year the Romeo Bra­gato Wine Award and the Mike Wolter Memo­rial Tro­phy, won with its 2013 vin­tage.

But in the late 1990s, Rod was think­ing about truf­fles as well as wine. At the time Dr Ian Hall had de­vel­oped a method to pro­duce Périg­ord black truf­fle (Tu­ber melanospo­rum) my­c­or­rhized plants at the then Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture and Fish­eries In­ver­may site near Dunedin.

Rod and Mi­rani started look­ing for the right po­si­tion on their land, and soil tem­per­a­tures were mon­i­tored for two years be­fore 240 in­oc­u­lated hazel­nut trees were planted on less than a hectare in 2003.

Back then the trees cost them $35 each and min­i­mum cul­ti­va­tion and or­chard de­vel­op­ment was re­quired apart from a wa­ter­ing sys­tem, wire trel­lis to sup­port the trees and plas­tic pro­tec­tion on their trunks to keep away pests.

The cou­ple be­came mem­bers of the New Zealand Truf­fle As­so­ci­a­tion and their ex­cite­ment grew.

And then noth­ing hap­pened. They let their mem­ber­ship lapse, their truf­fle dog Rissa, a Lagotto Ro­mag­nolo, prac­tised find­ing truf­fles in the home gar­den in Dunedin us­ing su­per­mar­ket­bought truf­fle oil and the dream slowly faded.

Un­til the find in 2015. Now Rissa is much more than a pet, she’s a prized mem­ber of the busi­ness. On a lead in the truf­fière, Rod gets her to sniff along each row of trees. When she smells a truf­fle she paws at the soil and then sits wait­ing.

He then gently prizes the truf­fle from the ground and Rissa gets a cube of cheese as a treat. The tree num­ber and where in re­la­tion it is to where the truf­fle was found are recorded as well as its size.

“They’re just be­low the sur­face of the ground, some­times as deep as 5cm. At the start we were find­ing them right by the trunks of the trees but now we are find­ing them fur­ther out as well,” Rod said.

So far the truf­fles have ranged in size from 20g to 250g. They are DNA tested ev­ery year at Dna­ture in Gis­borne to make sure they are Périg­ord black truf­fles and not the un­de­sir­able com­pet­ing Bru­male.

The hazel­nut trees are kept pruned back to make sure enough sun reaches the ground be­low them in the sum­mer. Soil tem­per­a­ture is im­por­tant for black truf­fles, es­pe­cially this far south.

“We need the soil tem­per­a­ture above 30 de­grees Cel­sius in sum­mer. It’s all right if it gets cold in the win­ter but it needs the warmth in the sum­mer.”

The north fac­ing slope they are grow­ing on helps.

Soil pH (acid­ity/al­ka­lin­ity) is also thought to be im­por­tant and the slope is nat­u­rally at 7.5.

“We planted some trees three me­tres apart and some up to six me­tres apart, to see if that made a dif­fer­ence, and we tried to stag­ger them a bit so it doesn’t look too much like a plan­ta­tion.

“The truf­fles are fruit­ing from late June to late Au­gust but we are un­cer­tain when the best time is to har­vest.

“Re­ally we are just guess­ing what is right and what is wrong, no one knows for sure this far south,” he said.

The cou­ple have re­joined the Truf­fle As­so­ci­a­tion and were at the an­nual na­tional con­fer­ence in Welling­ton at the end of Au­gust ready with ques­tions for their north­ern coun­ter­parts.

They also keep in touch with Ian Hall who is still avail­able for ad­vice. He left In­ver­may in 2003 and started his own busi­ness Truf­fles and Mush­rooms (Con­sult­ing) Ltd.

As well as the pres­sure and anx­i­ety of start­ing a new ven­ture, Mi­rani wasn’t keen on the idea of hav­ing the needed truf­fle dog. Rod told her his fa­ther would look af­ter it and they would just take it with them to Cen­tral Otago in the week­ends to find the truf­fles.

How­ever when the puppy ar­rived on the plane Mi­rani wasn’t hav­ing any of it, she had fallen in love.

“Lagotto Ro­mag­nola dogs are known as truf­fle dogs but any dog with a good sense of smell will prob­a­bly find them if it has been trained prop­erly,” Rod said.

The Ital­ian breed was first used as a gun dog, re­triev­ing ducks from lakes and ponds, and had al­most been lost as a breed un­til they found fame again as truf­fle dogs in Europe. The Keil­lors’ dog is named af­ter the Ital­ian girl­friend Rod’s fa­ther had dur­ing World War II.

Black Quail’s viti­cul­tur­ist Lyn Hor­ton, who lives near the vine­yard, looks af­ter the hazel­nut trees mak­ing sure they are wa­tered in sum­mer, the wild thyme that is en­demic to the area is kept mown, the trees pruned and the possums and rab­bits taken care of. (They’ve found that possums have a lik­ing for hazel­nuts and will strip branches bare.)

How­ever, when it is time for them to re­tire, the Keil­lors plan to move to Ban­nock­burn and take on a more ac­tive role. Mi­rani is al­ready look­ing for­ward to run­ning truf­fle hunts and has started mar­ket­ing and sell­ing the truf­fles.

With the sea­son short, from July un­til some­time in Au­gust, they are very much a win­ter treat. The volatile oils dis­si­pate when stored, so the sooner they are eaten fol­low­ing har­vest the bet­ter.

The Keil­lors gently clean the dirt off them with a damp soft brush and the true colours are then re­vealed.

“They are re­ally dense black and beau­ti­ful then,” Mi­rani said.

The true taste and aroma comes out with heat, so truf­fles are usu­ally shaved or grated into hot but­ter or onto fresh pasta or used in mashed pota­toes.

Rod and Mi­rani’s favourite is with eggs in omelettes or in French toast made from brioche and baked in the oven.

The smell and taste are de­scribed as earthy, of the un­der­growth on a damp day, but they are “re­ally like noth­ing else,” Mi­rani said.

“It is very sub­tle and at the same time very in­tense.”

So far Mill­brook Es­tate near Queen­stown and other Cen­tral Otago restau­rants have bought the truf­fles, of­ten pair­ing them per­fectly with the Black Quail Pinot Noir.

A truf­fle din­ner at the Dunedin Club this win­ter sold out within 24-hours.

“We’re foody peo­ple so we want to do this right,” she said.

“We’re adding to the Cen­tral Otago palate.We now know we can grow truf­fles here. Re­ally, it’s just like the wine.

“No one knew grapes would grow here suc­cess­fully un­til the first per­son tried it and now we have so many vine­yards. Maybe the truf­fles will be the same.”

“Lagotto Ro­mag­nola dogs are known as truf­fle dogs but any dog with a good sense of smell will prob­a­bly find them if it has been trained prop­erly.”

Mi­rani Keillor with their truf­fle

dog Rissa, a Lagotto Ro­mag­nolo.

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